• Family and friends of David Dungay hold a sign outside court. (SBS)Source: SBS
OPINION: What's happening in the United States is happening here in Australia, and has been happening for longer than people would like to acknowledge writes Dr Stephen Hagan.
Dr Stephen Hagan

1 Jun 2020 - 5:01 PM  UPDATED 2 Jun 2020 - 9:57 AM

Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr, from Kempsey NSW, was three weeks away from release out of the notorious Long Bay prison, after serving almost eight years of his sentence, when he made the desperate final plea “I can’t breathe” when set upon by prison officers who stormed his cell after he refused to stop eating a packet of biscuits.

Whilst the rest of Australia was enjoying their end of year festivities with family and friends 26 year-old David Dungay Jr was enduring a violent assault at the hands of people who were supposed to be protecting him, before succumbing to asphyxiation four days after Christmas 2015.

One of the prison guards involved in the death, appearing before the coroner’s court in July 2018, made the pitiful observation that it did not occur to him that David was in trouble, during the process of transferring him to another cell, despite witnessing him panicking, gasping for air and screaming “I can’t breathe”.

The guard (called Officer O), under cross examination and in acknowledging David’s level of distress, used the pathetic excuse for his actions saying he thought, “if a person could talk, they could breathe”.

If that all sounds familiar to you, then yes, the I CAN’T BREATHE black T-shirts worn by black sporting identities (including LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and the late Kobe Bryant) and protestors six years ago after the death in custody of African American man Eric Garner, and reposted to social media following the death of George Floyd, 46, in Minneapolis last week, did so as a show of support and solidarity in the cause.

Floyd, arrested on suspicion of a non-violent crime of using counterfeit money at a nearby store, was pinned to the road by a police officer with his knee firmly on his throat for eight minutes. During that time, he could be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe” as well as “My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Please. Please. I can’t breathe”, without sympathy being afforded him by the offending officer.

Bystanders’ video recording of the heinous crime of the principal transgressor, white officer Derek Chauvin, ably assisted by two fellow officers in restraining Floyd and a further accomplice in blue who kept concerned onlookers at bay, graphically revealed the callous disregard of the wellbeing of the distraught black man. The co-conspirators perverted notion of justice essentially rendered the violent act by Chauvin they observed being committed on Floyd to be of little consequence to warrant an intervention. That heartless indifference grounded historically on race is why America is experiencing its worse civil unrest in decades and speaks volumes of the value of black men in that country by the vast majority.

Similarly, in David Dungay Jr case not one of the five officers restraining him showed any concern for his deteriorating condition as they too viewed him as another black man with no rights. National statistics on black deaths in custody are shocking yet minimal political intervention to address this crisis has been forthcoming: as of August 22, 2019, a further 424 First Nations people had died in custody since the end of the royal commission in 1991, that investigated 99 deaths in custody from 1980 to 1989.

Under cross examination Officer O said he thought David was “trying to trick guards by saying he couldn’t breathe” even though he made the desperate plea 12 times. After being fully restrained, David was administered a sedative midazolam and died.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called the shocking incident in his city that set off a series of unprecedented violent protests around the United States, including the burning of a police station near the fatality and of countless commercial buildings, made the poignant statement, “Being black in America should not be a death sentence”.

I didn’t hear the premier of NSW or the prime minister say similar words as that made by the respectful 38-year-old Minneapolis mayor on being appraised of the brutal death of David Dungay Jr in custody back in 2015, and I doubt whether NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian or PM Scott Morrison would articulate a narrative of sympathy along comparable lines today.

Unfortunately for many First Nations families in Australia, like the Dungay’s from Dunghutti country, the adage ‘Being black in Australia should not be a death sentence’ is aspirational, as many would argue the literal opposite has more currency.

Australia needs to heed the warnings from the shocking I Can't BREATHE protests in America at present and have that uncomfortable conversation on the elephant in the room before the inconvenience morphs into a US-like reality.

– Dr Stephen Hagan, a Kullilli man raised in a fringe camp on the outskirts of Cunnamulla in south west Queensland, is an award winning film maker and author, a former diplomat, academic and businessman.